Commentary: No longer Ashamed Of This Cooking Secret
This week, WFAE's Public Conversations series turns to a topic that's close to our stomachs. On Thursday, we'll have a public forum called Southern Cooking: Then and Now. The topic motivated WFAE's Elizabeth Shaffer to reminisce about a cooking byproduct that she didn't want to share with the public - until now. I have a secret in my closet. It's on the bottom shelf right between my Kitchen Aid mixer and a stack of muffin tins. I don't talk about it much. In the era of raw food and skinny jeans, it's been best to keep it under wraps. So here goes, my secret is a container of rendered pork fat, or what my mother calls "bacon grease" - that glorious golden liquid leftover from frying bacon, and as some of you probably know, a pantry staple of old-fashioned Southern cooks. After every piece of bacon was fried, my mother would pull out her tin, pour the grease through the strainer, and return the can to the cabinet below the sink. Growing up on my family's pig farm in Kentucky, I had no reason to think this behavior particularly odd. Pork was king and there was never a shortage of pork fat. Everyone cooked with bacon grease. I remember standing on a kitchen chair pushed up next to the stove watching as my mother spooned a dollop of the creamy, white fat into a hot cast iron skillet. Whatever went into the pan next, be it cornbread or chicken, emerged perfectly golden, crispy, and perfumed with a subtle meatiness that was heaven on a plate. Southern food has a wonderful way of soothing what ails you. As a little girl, a bad day was no match for my mom's fried cornbread. But that was then. I grew up. Moved away to college. And learned a thing or two about cholesterol. Along the way, I figured out that not everybody keeps a can of homemade lard under the kitchen sink. I vividly recall the day I figured it out. My mom and I were shopping for a few essentials to stock my first apartment. A container for pork fat hadn't crossed my mind as "essential", but my mom thought otherwise. When she couldn't find one on the shelves, she asked a store clerk for assistance. I froze. I could feel myself blushing. The clerk didn't have a clue what we were talking about. His expression left me mortified. At that moment something that had seemed so natural growing up became something altogether abnormal. Mom eventually did find me a grease tin. But it sat on a forgotten shelf in the pantry. Empty. For a long time. Waiting. In its place was a growing interest in and exposure to new types of food. There were new friends from different backgrounds and with different experiences. Pig farms and collard greens seemed to pale in comparison. I traded bacon fat for olive oil, and cornbread for baguettes. The grease tin went the way of childhood stories about stripping tobacco and weaning piglets from their mothers, covered up in an attempt to conceal my country roots. For a while I even traded bacon for its more cosmopolitan and healthy imposter-turkey bacon. What was I thinking? My cat won't even eat turkey bacon. I came to my senses with help from an unexpected source: Gourmet magazine. Where I expected to find recipes for terrines and reductions, I made a startling discovery. Tucked in those pages was a celebration of local cuisines and home-cooking. All those exotic and sophisticated dishes aren't exotic to the people who grew up with them. Valuing food is just one part of valuing place. For so long I had taken for granted the allure of the traditions and foods around me. Maybe it was moving away from home and missing the smell of biscuits coming from my mother's oven, but today I miss the farm. My relationship with Southern cooking, just like my relationship with my past, is deep and complicated. It took me a long time to realize that while growing up on a pig farm might not be glamorous it is special. Today, I'm proud of where I'm from and very happy that I have a grease can full of bacon fat in my pantry.